Can committed believers and committed non-believers share a common political life in the context of a secular state?
Tomorrow, we do a show on "Religion and the Secular State" with Robert Audi as our guest. There will be lots of issues to talk about I am sure. Arguments for and against the separation of church and state, whether "religious reasons" can function as "public reasons" in a secular state, hot button issues like abortion, the pledge of allegiance. We might not, though, get to what I regard as one of the most fundamental issues about religion, since it isn't really the focus of this episode. I'm thinking both about the epistemology of religious belief and religion's "practical significance," to use a not quite perfect phrase. If, like David Hume, you think that religious belief is mostly superstitious or, like the philosopher, Georges Rey (warning .pdf), you think it's mostly based on wishful thinking and/or self-deception, then it seems to follow that religious belief deserves no more respect and acknowledgment than superstition -- especially not from the state, but also not from anyone who is committed to the minimal canons of evidential rationality. To be sure, there are very smart philosophers, like Alvin Plantinga and William Alston, who argue that religious beliefs are espistemically respectable. But I want to assume in this post, just for the sake of argument, that they are not and see what, if anything follows, about whether we should acknowledge and respect religious belief in either the public or private spheres.
So my question is this: assuming that religious beliefs are in some sense less than fully rational, what follows for how they ought or ought not to be respected and acknowledge in private and public life?
You might think that the answer is straight-forward on this assumption. But even if we assume the thoroughgoing epistemic unreasonableness of religious belief, it still turns out to be complicated.
First of all, believers don't experience their own religious beliefs as mere superstitions or as the products of self-deception (this is contra Georges Rey). Religion is often experienced as a source of deeply endorsed values and of fundamental life projects. Shared religious beliefs and traditions bind people together into communities that bridge gulfs of race, ethnicity, nationality. Such communities tie the generations together in networks of mutual support and reciprocal obligations. That's what I mean by the "practical significance" of religious belief. Once you have them, a whole new normative and social order opens up. Lots of good has been done both for and by the inhabitants of such normative and social orders.
You could even try to "justify" religious belief by appeal to the practical benefits of adopting such beliefs. It would go something like this. Once you believe, life takes on whole new meaning, you become enmeshed in life-affirming and sustaining traditions and practices -- depending, of course, of the details of the religion. So, why not believe? You could run this sort of argument even if you grant that the evidence is lacking because you could say that we often believe, and sincerely and non self-deceptively believe, even when there is no evidence.
But still, the question remains what am I as a non-believer and a friend of the canons of evidential rationality supposed to say to this line of thinking? As long as there is no attempt to impose religious belief on me, especially as long as religion is divorced from state power, then it's no skin off my back. Let people have their superstitions, let them define their life projects and find their deepest values in any way they want. Just don't bother me. That's not exactly respecting religious belief, but it's not exactly disrespecting it either. Moreover, some aspects of their life projects and fundamental values might be independently "reasonable" even though adopted for religious reasons. So they might contribute to an "overlapping consensus" about the basic shape of our shared lives. And that's all to the good. You don't have to be religious to endorse the sanctity of human life, to yearn for peace, or to work for the amelioration of human misery everywhere.
The problem is that many believers will not be satisfied with such relatively benign indifference to the fundamentals of religious belief. That I think is because religion functions for many as a totalizing system of valuation -- and this is really how it differs from that which is experienced as mere superstition. By that I mean that many believers experience through their traditions and theology a felt entitlement to hold the world to the strictures of their religion in one way or another. The means they adopt for doing so have historically ranged from the benign -- preaching, teaching, feeding -- to the truly destructive -- persecution, progroms, crusades, and so on.
Of course, the religiously committed would probably say back to the religiously uncommitted that their positions are exactly equal. We atheistic worshipers of the canons of secular rationality feel an entitlement to hold the world to our standards of belief. The means we adopt to bring that about range from the benign to the truly destructive. So what's really the difference?
That's an excellent question. I won't try to address it fully here. But I'd suggest that the big difference has to do with what I'll call responsiveness to rational pressure both from the "world" in terms of evidence for and against our beliefs and from other rational beings. Religious belief in some way sits outside what I like to call the contest of reason. The religious believer experiences certain of her beliefs as beyond the reach of rational arguments and evidence, as unquestionable articles of faith. That, I think, makes them conversation stoppers. Convictions that make the public conversation impossible to continue do not belong in the public sphere in the first place. Faith may or may not be a good thing for the faithful. But when faith is not shared, and represents itself as beyond the reach of reason, it makes public conversation difficult.
We have something of a paradox. To the extent that religion generates in the believer the felt entitlement -- an entitlement not secured or ratiifed by reason -- to hold the world to their religion, religion demands a place in the public square. But the more totalizing religion becomes and the more unwilling it is, in effect, to share the public square, to view itself as contestable, as one set of beliefs and practices among others, all of which must earn their public places through public reason, argument, and evidence, religion is simply not made for the public square. Perhaps believers do a disservice to themselves and to others when they insist that it is.